Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ariel - Sylvia Plath


1965; 85 pages. Genre : Poetry. Overall Rating : B..

    A collection of poems, often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, by Sylvia Plath in the last months of her life, and while alone with her children (Ted Hughes had left her for another woman) and freezing during a bitter London winter.

What's To Like...
    What can I say? Plath is a maestro with words. Here she writes about a variety of subjects. There is the warm love she has for her children. There is also some darkness - especially when she's writing about her Dad and her straying husband. Death makes its appearance as well, but there are not as many lines devoted to it as I had feared. And last but not least - she throws in some cool chemical compouinds - Carbon Monoxide, Arsenic, and Acetic Acid. Yeah go ahead, name any other poem that has the phrase 'Acetic Acid' in it.

   .Although it's a short read, there is almost no rhyming here, and very little meter. That makes it tough on a traditionalist like me. Some of the poems are too vague for me. You almost need notes to understand them. Ariel, for instance, is not about the Shakespearean sprite; it's about a horse she rode at a nearby riding academy. Berck-Plage is about a veteran's hospital she visited in France. There's 4 or 5 poems about bee-keeping. It helps to know Plath had a bee colony in her backyard, and was a member of a beekeeper's club. I've yet to discover why a yew tree keeps showing up in this book.
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Don't buy this book!!
    This 1965 version of Ariel was edited by Ted Hughes, who took the liberty of deleting 12 of the poems and replacing them with a dozen of Plath's earlier works. He also decided Plath didn't know the proper order to put them in. Plath's daughter Frieda later put out a version with the correct poems and correct order. When I was at Borders over the weekend, I found there is now a "Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath" which, at 200+ pages, includes everything from Ariel and Colossus, and a bunch of other assorted poetry she penned. All for less than $20. So the version I read is obsolete.

   .In the end, I'd give Ariel an "A" for its biographical insight. But when I step away from that, a lot of these poems could use a bit of polish. I know everything Plath wrote is sacrosanct to her devotées, but objectively, penning 2-3 poems a day means they could've been improved with time and effort. Therefore I give this Ariel a "B", partly cuz it isn't perfect, and partly cuz it's Hughes' inferior version.

   .Ariel has sat on my TBR shelf for quite some time. I read it now because earlier this month, Plath's son, Nicholas Hughes took his own life by hanging after losing his battle with depression. It seemed fitting to pay my respects to him by reading a book of Plath's poetry.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sick Puppy - Carl Hiaasen


1999; 513 pages. Genre : Witty crime. Overall Rating : C+..

    Greedy lobbyists and unscrupulous land developers want to turn an unspoiled island on the coast of Florida into golf courses, condos, shopping malls, and high-rises. But first they need to pull some political strings to get funding for a new bridge to connect it to the mainland.

What's To Like...
    The story moves at a decent pace. There's a dopily adorable black lab (the "sick puppy"), and two living, breathing, cosmetically-enhanced, immigrant Barbie Dolls. It has an "Animal House" type ending. The demise of the hired thug is hilarious.

   .OTOH, as oxymoronic as it sounds, the predictable plot requires a huge suspension of belief. One example - the baddies kill their own "environmental specialist" for no discernible reason other than to establish that they're the baddies. Then there's the characters. Here's four of the main ones...
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Twilly Spree : Has anger-management issues and a thing about littering. Runs elderly ladies off the road for chucking a cigarette butt. Beats teenagers to a bloody pulp for tossing a beer can. Steals dogs. Sleeps with other men's wives.
Desie Stoat : Repeatedly betrays her hubbie's political deals, for no apparent reason. Cheats on him too.
Twilly's Mom : Sees nothing wrong with those two showing up at her house - with the badly beaten-up hubby. Helps tie him to a chair and puts a pillowcase over his head. Her parting words to Twilly when the three are leaving - "Try not to hurt him too bad, dear."
Skink : Ex-governor. Now runs around the Everglades like a psycho hermit. Beats up people to get information. Kills badly-hurt guys in a slow, painful way.

A Blacker Shade of Dark...
    Okay, you're probably not impressed with those four. Here's the deal. They're the good guys. Which gives you some idea how vile the bad guys are.
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    Twilly initially crosses paths with Desie's hubby (Palmer Stoat), when the latter tosses some fast-food wrappers out the car window. His vengeance - dumping 10 tons of garbage onto Palmer's Beemie convertible, and 7,000 dung beetles into his house. Is there some morality lesson I should be learning from that?
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    Weirdly, I eventually ended up pulling for Palmer, despite him having no redeemable qualities. The good guys keep beating him up. The bad guys keep beating him up. His wife and dog leave him. His expensive cigars are fake. All he wants to do is be a crooked deal-maker.
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    I am told that some of Hiaasen's other stuff is funnier. So we'll give Sick Puppy a C+ because there are just enough funny parts, and at least the good guys aren't pathetically boy-scoutish. And resolve to read at least one more of his books.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ella Minnow Dunn - Mark Dunn


2001; 205 pages. Full Title : Ella minnow Pea - A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable. Genre : Contemporary Literature. Overall Rating : A..

    Briefly : The idyllic life on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina becomes dystopian when the tiles bearing the letters of a sacred phrase ("The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog") begin to become unglued, thus falling off and shattering.

What's To Like...
    The main delight of Ella Minnow Pea ("LMNOP") is the wonderful wordplay created by Dunn. It's sort of a literary mix of the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ogden Nash. Have your dictionary handy when you read this book; Dunn introduces you to a lot of beautful-but-obscure words, and a bunch of mellifluous ones he simply made up.

.   The main message of LMNOP is this - don't blindly accept the edicts of the politicians and organized religion. Try the spirits, examine the prophecies, and evaluate the probability that a Deity has for some reason chosen them to convey a message to you. To quote a great slogan from an otherwise silly sect : "To question is the answer".
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    Another less-obvious hypothesis fleshed out in LMNOP is that a language is an organic, evolving entity. The natives of Nollop speak English, but due to their isolation, it's a bit different from our "American", and/or the King's "English". Similarly, I own a "How To Communicate In Autralian" phrasebook that exists because of that sort of isolation. Alas, as more and more of the letters of the alphabet become taboo due to Nollopian laws, their language suffers as well. By the end, when only five letters remain legal, speaking and writing are reduced to essentially a five-year-old's level.

Don't Read LMNOP If...
    If you're in the mood for a dystopian novel, don't read this book. Ditto, if you're looking for a complex storyline and deep character development. The dystopian setting and the letters written are merely vehicles for Dunn to develop the themes listed above. The fact that the oppressive bad guys give up their power after reading a single sentence is ample proof that this isn't a serious look at a Brave New World.

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs...
    I enjoyed this book immensely, especialy since it agrees with my views on the themes Dunn addresses. The purpose of language is to communicate. Commas and semicolons should not be bound by silly rules; they're an art-form. And if you have an opportunity to make up a new word to convery your ideas more clearly (or use an existing word in a new connotation), well kewl beans! You're helping the generational evolution of English.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dance of Death - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child


2005; 560 pages. Genre : Action Thriller. Overall Rating : B-. Notes : Second book in the "Diogenes Trilogy". The first book was Brimstone, reviewed here.
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    Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast receives a message from his younger brother, Diogenes; who informs him of his plan to commit the Perfect Crime. He even tells him the date - 28 January. Alas, even with the "Who" and "When" filled in, the "What" remains a mystery, until one by one, Aloysius' friends and associates start to turn up murdered.
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What's To Like...
    This is "Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty" moved up to the present day. Aloysius is Holmes, naturally; and NYPD Detective Vincent D'Agosta plays his Dr. Watson. Diogenes combines the mental acumen of Holmes' brother Mycroft with the pure evil of Moriarty. A most worthy opponent, with an undying hatred of his brother.
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    The book takes a while to get going, with only a grisly killing or three to liven things up in the whole first half. But when it finally kicks into gear, it's a great read, with lots of twists, humor, red herrings and action to keep you turning the pages.

.The characters are great. Aloysius isn't perfect. Indeed, for most of the book, Diogenes runs circles around him. And mention should be made of the reporter Smithback, who'll do anything for a scoop, but nicely is not cast into that Hollywoodian stereotype of being an arrogant stooge.

Oh no! It's The Two Towers Malaise...
    In the end, however, the book is drawn down by the fact that it's #2 in a 3-part series. So you know that, while Good must prevail, Diogenes is going to live to fight another day.
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    And while the Aloysius-vs-Diogenes storyline would get an approving nod from Conan Doyle, there's a Preston-Child omission here - the "Is It Natural Or Is It Supernatural" issue that came up in each of the other three books I've read by these guys. Sometimes it's the former; sometimes it's the latter. The fact that it could be either one is one of the real hooks in a Preston-Child story. In Dance Of Death, we get teased by the possibility of one of these, but like a morning Phoenician thundercloud, it gradually dissipates into nothing.
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    So we'll give this a B-, with the understanding that a mediocre effort by these two authors is still above-average when it comes to a killer-thriller novel. And advise potential readers of Dance Of Death to read Brimstone first.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lost in a Good Book - Jasper Fforde


2002; 399 pages. Genre : just as many as The Eyre Affair had. Overall Rating : B+..

    Thursday Next's life has become rather hectic. She's pregnant, and her hubby's been time-napped. Someone is trying to kill her with coincidences. The Spec-Ops cops and Goliath Corp. consider her a liability. Uncle Mycroft has retired and Daddy is still on the run, stopping by only to tip her off that Armageddon is coming in the form of a pink sludge.
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What's To Like...
    The primary literary import this time is Miss Havisham, the man-hating dowager from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Fforde brings Havisham into the 20th Century and adds delightful depth to her character. She has a passion for anything with a powerful engine, and you are advised not to get into any vehicle that she's driving/steering.

.   Equally engaging is the Cheshire Cat, who reminds me a lot of the orangutan Librarian in the Discworld series. Indeed, LIAGB is rife with literary references - besides Great Expectations, the following are either visited or export characters to Fforde's book : Kafka's The Trial; Alice In Wonderland; Poe's The Raven; and even Beatrix Potter's Peter Cottontail series. Another half-dozen books make cameo appearances. I dare say that Fforde does for classic literature what Disney animated movies and cartoons do for classical music.

.   There is the same zaniness and wit as was in The Eyre Affair, and the same plethora of plotlines. Alas, Fforde seems to have developed Robert Jordan Syndrome. That is, he starts a lot more plotlines than he finishes. The drove me crazy in the Wheel Of Time novels.

.   The ending is a bit contrived, and only ties up one of the loose ends. There isn't a lot of romance here, what with Next's husband having been spirited away to parts and times unknown.

   .Fforde uses a different approach to the classics in this story. There's a lot more time/dimension travel, a lot more classics visited; but no altering-of-endings that I could discern. That's probably for the better, as it opens the door for Fforde's creativeness.

   .I enjoyed Lost In A Good Book just as much as The Eyre Affair, and since my local library carries all five books in the series, it is likely that I'll read the gamut. Book 3 is titled The Well Of Lost Plots, which is a repository for all those storylines that were thought of, but never published. One can only imagine what the fertile mind of Fforde will do with that.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson


1998; 274 pages. Genre : Anecdotal. Overall Rating : B..

    Bill Bryson's witty recounting of his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, despite being 44, not in shape, and not knowing anything about hiking. He's joined by his boyhood friend, Stephen Katz, who is even more out-of-shape and unknowledgeable than Bryson.

What's To Like...
    As usual, Bryson self-deprecating humor had me chuckling out loud. There's the savings-draining trip to the sports store, trying to pack without breaking one's back, the foibles of a pair of urbanites camping in the wilderness, and a guffaw-inducing meeting with a moose. Fortunately, the bears, ticks, and poisonous snakes stayed away.
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    You also get to share his joy as he beholds sunrises and mountain ridges essentially untouched by the human hand. And Bryson shares his research into the history of the trail, the US National Park Service, the fauna and flora, and the very mountains themselves.
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    Unfortunately, the chuckles-per-page diminish in the second half of the book. Maybe Bryson had difficulty finding something funny about almost dying from hypothermia. So the first half of the book (Georgia thru Virginia) rates an "A"; while the last half (Pennsylvania thru Maine) rates a "C".
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You dare to call yourself a hiker?!
    The Appalachian Trail is 2200 miles long. Almost all of it is up-and-down mountains on barely discernible paths. I once did a 10-mile hike in Boy Scouts, over mostly level eastern-Pennsylvanian terrain, in perfect weather, and at a leisurely pace. It took most of the day.
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    Bryson ended up walking 890 of those 2200 miles. That he'd write a book about this feat seems to have ticked off a bunch of self-styled "serious hikers". Personally, I'm quite impressed. I didn't enjoy AWITW quite as much as I did The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid, but it's still an entertaining book, and a recommended read.